This is a reprint of the Books essay from Issue #44 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly).
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,
Much like the poem that it is based on, David Lowery’s The Green Knight meditates on shame and its potential manifestations and futures. Through Dev Patel’s Gawain, the viewer is challenged to confront the knight’s shame as well as their own. To bear it like a burden. To shift it from one object (an axe) to another (a girdle). But to always carry it. To always be confronted with it. Or, maybe worst, to always fear that eventual confrontation.
Lowery has dissected, diluted and deconstructed the extant Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into a single theme. A narrative disguised as an Arthurian legend carrying the weight of personal penance and anxiety.
Gawain, in both the 2021 film and 14th-century poem, fails and fails again. In this failure, the story of shame holds a mirror up to the viewer, asks for a meditation of our own failings, our own shame, and maybe more uncomfortably, what we plan to do with that shame.
The Green Knight imagines different futures that manifest from Gawain’s shame: a lonesome death, a loveless marriage, a kingdom in ruin, and the loss of a child. These futures are as hopeless as the other men that Gawain encounters throughout. Each of these men present a different manifestation of shame. Each, in this way, a different imagined future for Gawain.
The Green Knight is a beautifully bleak film. Each frame discomforts the viewer as they are asked to sit with its contents. To sit with the mirror and meditate on how what we do with our shame will shape our own future.
Clint Morrison, Jr. is a medievalist, gamer, and writer currently residing in Columbus, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @morrison_clint.